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Rachel and Clay didn’t go back to the party. They got back in their fighters and simulated against each other just for practice, and talked the whole time, while Rachel killed Clay seven times and Clay killed Rachel six times.

After the second time she killed him, while they were resetting, Clay was expecting some trash talk. Instead, Rachel’s voice from the comm said, “Can you work this out for me? I can’t seem to work it out. Bluehorse, I mean. Why she’s dead.”

“What? Well, she hadn’t had a chance to figure out the, um, exact—!”

“Clay,” said Rachel in That Tone. “Clay, I’m serious. She’s gone. Just gone.”

Clay was at a loss for what to say. He was just never sure with Rachel: was she messing around, being silly or snarky, or was she super serious? Was he actually in the position of trying to help Rachel come to terms with the concept of loss?

“Yes,” he said, for in doubt, Clay generally chose truth. “She is gone. There’s no why. She didn’t die for a purpose. But she did die to make a particular thing happen. She died to save Gil Rojette’s life, and she managed it.”

“So she traded herself for him. I mean, I don’t mind, really, he’s a great dancer and I like him as a person and all, but—!”

“But it’s not just that. She thought she had a chance of surviving. She always thinks she’s going to win, she always thought that. I mean, bless her heart, she lost a lot in the simulator, but you know, you fought her. And besides.”

“She gave us information,” said Rachel. “And we have to use it. Because that way her death counts for something somehow. It has meaning.”

“Rachel, perish the thought,” said Clay. “Are you ready to try and blow me up a few more times or do you need to work out all the philosophical ramifications first?”

“I need to work out all the philosophical what you said,” replied Rachel. “You have to understand. I’m actually not a person who ever really thought she’d be possibly killed by, like, an enemy. Or see her friends killed and want to kill the enemy, but was a tad concerned she might be next.”

“Yeah,” said Clay, “that’s the hard part.”

“Imagine how it is for Gil.”

“Yeah. That would suck. But look,” said Clay, and then he fumbled for words.

“You’d think he’d think he’d need to compensate, somehow,” said Rachel. “Fight the next one for Bluehorse. You know. Earn the right to have been saved.”

“That’s a good one,” said Clay. “But I don’t know, though. Do you have a purpose? I never thought I had a purpose. But out here, just the, you know, eight thousand of us or whatever, we’re pretty much on our own. We have to rely on each other, we have to be willing to sacrifice a few of us for the good of the whole. Not just scatter when there’s a threat.”

“What if,” said Rachel, “scattering was the best way to survive out here?”

“Well, don’t forget,” said Clay, “there’s at least one other species out here, probably more. Scattering is probably dangerous under those conditions: we need to keep together and be ready to dig in and defend our perimeter. And you know I’m not a military guy.”

“Great,” she said. “The night sky always looked to tranquil. I go out here among the ordinary red dwarfs and stuff, and I find myself in the middle of a free fire zone.” She punched up the start of the simulation again. “Ready to go again? Let’s do a ground level scenario.”

So they fought a few ground level fights. Clay was better in those conditions, and he kept even with Rachel. Then she punched up another scenario, and the two of them were navigating over lunar terrain—it was 55 Cancri d’s third largest moon—fighting pairs and quartets of low-quality enemy fighters. As they flew down an ice canyon, parts of four imaginary enemies strewn over the snowy peaks behind them, Rachel asked Clay the other question: “Clay, what is the situation with Natasha and Vera right now? And you? Just confidentially, between us.”

“Confidentially between us, I don’t have the slightest clue.”

“Bull bricks, Clay. You are serious about Tasha, aren’t you? But are you also serious about Vera? Because I would get that, I really would. In a way, you figure there are just so many more women than men in the wings—and of course, of the other ten, the colony ship babies, they had ten, and one’s dead, and I think only one other is a guy, the rest are chicks. And now of course we’ve got Bonnie Bain, of whom more later. But so there are more women than men in the fighter corps. It’s just that—!”

“I’m not the boyfriend of five different women,” said Clay. “I can hardly manage one.”

“You’re not managing Bonnie Bain, too, are you?”

“Ha! No. I let Ron eat all the chocolates with the love potion in them. So if you’re Hermione and I’m Harry, then does that mean Natasha is Ron?”

“Natasha is Ron,” said Rachel. “But actually I’m Harry and you’re Hermione. I’m not saying you have to end up with her. I can only tell you that whatever Tasha believes, and I love her, but you probably know she’s a whole lot of messed up inside, but if it were me, I would expect a man to be a one woman man, and I would be a one man woman. Coming up on a target—oh, look, four more of these guys. I need to program them to be a little more varied. Maneuver 3A?”

“Is that the one where we drop into the rift valley, split and go up different side valleys, and you lose yours and catch me up?”

“That’s the one,” said Rachel. As they dropped out of the path of the oncoming simulated fighters and started their mad careen down the ice valley, she added, her voice in Clay’s ear: “Why ever would you get to be Harry Potter?”

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